It’s great fun here at the Rooty Hill RSL. Downstairs, the poker machines are flashing and pinging and pulling enough electricity to power a medium-sized Chinese city. Thirty or 40 semi-comatose punters are feeding the one cent slots. A good half-dozen people are watching the Keno screen as they eat their dinners in the Fred Chubb Lounge beside the netting-covered prizes for the upcoming Father’s Day raffle. The jewel in the crown is a plastic wheelbarrow filled with garden supplies, but you have to be there on the day to collect.
Upstairs in the Waratah Room, the assembled press, anonymous onlookers and assorted political phantoms are milling around the mezzanine. Down in the stalls are seated Galaxy polling’s 200 swinging voters from Sydney’s western suburbs. Except there aren’t 200 of them, they aren’t undecided and a lot of them aren’t from the western suburbs. Muted excitement hangs in the air like a bowl of potato wedges, lightly dusted with some unidentifiable, appetite enhancing, possibly carcinogenic substance. Julia Gillard is scheduled to begin her address in five minutes. Hubble, hubble, hubbub.
Television reporters are doing their scene-setters to camera. Blonde stick-girl and smarmy tie-boy. A heavy-hitter from The Daily Murdoch is tapping at the laptop balanced on his paunch, his jowls ponderous with received wisdom, self-importance on an expense account. Farnsworth Blagh reporting.
Bronwyn Bishop arrives, hairdo parting the flacks like the prow of a Roman trireme. She glowers at the carpet, working on her hump, until somebody takes pity and interviews her. And now a hush is falling on the Waratah Room. The show is about to begin.
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Rooty Hill RSL is the last stop of my day here in western Sydney. It’s in Chifley, safe Labor by nearly 20%. My brief is the marginals and I’ve spent the afternoon in neighbouring Lindsay, where the margin is more marginal. Exactly how marginal is a moot point. Marginal enough to necessitate the removal of a Prime Minister, according to some. Certainly marginal enough to prompt the Labor candidate, David Bradbury, to mount the deck of a navy vessel off Darwin and point accusingly at the Indian Ocean.
My native informant is a state-government health bureaucrat whose remit covers the territory where the suburban sprawl bumps up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains. He picks me up in Mt Druitt, an hour by rail from Central, and we drive to Penrith, the epicentre of Lindsay. On the way, we pass through pockets of public housing. Ethnic gangs sometimes maraud westward from here, putting the wind up the citizens of Lindsay.
Penrith is a country town that has been eaten by the city. The main drag is a remnant of times past, its shops overshadowed by the three-block behemoth of the Westfield mall. Almost everybody is white. Anglo white, not even wog white. Midweek lunchtime in the food court of the lower-upper-middle range shopping centre, McDonald’s is outselling Ali Baba 10 to one.
If you’re looking for a punch in the mouth, I’m told, the forecourt of the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre is the place to go. A pocket park in an angle of the mall, the Joan is a beacon for adventure-seeking youths who congregate there Friday and Saturday evenings to exchange epithets and blows.
Employment is an issue. People commute to jobs elsewhere, or work in government offices, hospitals or the university. There’s an industrial area, but nothing in the way of manufacturing.
We head through Glenmore Park, a newish suburb of McMansions. Three bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, built to the boundary, no eaves, no backyards, two-car garage. Two parents, three jobs, crippling mortgage, kids at the local Catholic school, private education on the cheap. Labor’s BIR didn’t win any points here. The public schools are fairly new and don’t need infrastructure, but they didn’t get a say in how the money was spent.
The pulsating heart of Lindsay is the Panthers World of Entertainment, just across from the Penrith Panthers stadium. It’s a stylish joint, all black marble and white pebbles and water features. Offerings include aqua golf, beer tastings with amuse bouche and the KAOS family entertainment arcade. The car park is bigger than the entire Jafna Peninsula. Not that they don’t need it, what with the 1000 poker machines and the big Jimmy Barnes show next week.
It’s onward to Orchard Hills, heading into the rural. Big sprawling houses separated by paddocks not quite big enough to farm. Italians come to mind. Family estates three generations in the making. Then, suddenly, a carved-out enclave of huge houses on huge lots on streets named for grape varieties. Cabernet Court, Bordeaux Place, Muscatel Way. We take the wrong turn on Shiraz Street and hit the Chablis dead end.
Ten minutes later, we’re back across the motorway in St Marys. This is Lindsay’s wrong side of the tracks, more methadone than merlot, a strip of $2 shops and tattoo parlours. The shops have roll-down shutters, the pedestrians wear flannelette and every surface in sight is tagged. Think Shameless.
A little further up the road I see my first indication of the election, a trailer-mounted David Bradbury billboard. It’s on an intersection across from the Hog’s Breath Café. Maybe the candidate is worried the curry munchers have got their eyes on our onion rings.
People around here are breeding. Lots of babies, so Abbott’s maternity leave offer is a good move. Bradbury, I’m told, is youth friendly. When he was mayor of Penrith, he rocked up to the opening of a municipal skate park with his own deck, didn’t disgrace himself either. Them skaters are voters now.
It is with a heavy heart that I bid fond farewell to marginal Lindsay and make tracks for Rooty Hill and its famed RSL.
With Julia about to take the stage, I undertake some rapid vox pops. Lawrence, a wheezing chap in his late sixties with Les Patterson teeth, has caught the train from Five Dock, 40 kilometres and five electorates away. He rang Galaxy and asked if he could be one of their swinging voters. Fine, they said. Fifty dollars and all the cordial you can drink. Lawrence thinks pensioners and the unemployed are being ignored by both parties. He himself is an unemployed security guard.
Trying in vain to imagine what Lawrence might conceivably have been employed to guard, I find another contestant. John, a self-managed superannuant, has travelled a mere ten kilometres to be here. He rang the club who gave him the number for Galaxy who asked him “a couple of questions” and put his name on the list. He is exercised by the lack of entitlement to the full range of government support for self-funded retirees. He and his wife are scratching by on a mere $80,000 a year, yet they don’t qualify for discount travel on public transport. Or something. Disgraceful, I mutter as I edge away.
Greyhairs such as Lawrence and Peter form a substantial cross-section of Galaxy’s sample. Even the host guy from Sky News, David Speers, has grey hair. He’s still under 40, so those years at 2UE must have really taken a toll.
The prime minister has taken the stage, perched on a bar stool, her jacket the colour of a fillet of flake. The applause is polite, muted. She does her school marm thing, hands up if you’ve got a mortgage. The audience complies, but without enthusiasm. Don’t encourage her or you’ll end up doing star jumps.
The questions begin. Some of the audience are blatantly, exuberantly partisan. They don’t like her. A lard-arsed dirigible has parked himself beside the microphone stand. He huffs and snorts and shakes his dewlaps at everything Gillard says. I do a quick head count, trying to separate the pollees from the press. Quite a few married couples, judging by the matching tracksuit ensembles. About a dozen empty seats. 141. I try again. 149. There’s a line of prospective questioners, but I can’t tell the wranglers from the voters.
A teacher queries the wisdom of incentive pay for teachers, saying it is unworkable and likely to be divisive. This gets a good round of applause, but that might be because she’s nailed Gillard, not because it’s a valid point. An orange-haired, string-vested Sapphist asks about gay marriage, her legal reasoning as watertight as a surgical suture. The crowd applauds. Gillard bloviates. Lawrence the Vigilant asks his question. What about the poor pensioners? There are voting tokens on the empty chairs. I do another count. 170. The highest I’ll get all night.
It’s half time. The audience, media and assorted blow-ins mix and mingle. We get tasty things on sticks and, if you’re quick, scallops on the half-shell. Philip Ruddock is here. It must be a dull night at the cemetery. Like Gary Cooper, with whom he is rarely compared, Ruddock is tiny. But his reach is long. Get between him and a tray of sushi at your own risk.
Abbott takes the stage, then jumps down onto the floor, the wide-arm, shoulder-swing strut, the toey energy. He’s like a spring, those really boingy ones in a biro. Cameras flash madly for a long time, just like they didn’t for Gillard. It adds to the action man impression.
The first question is a dead-set Dorothy Dixer about the cost of an ETS being yet another tax. The second questioner cites his Rhodes Scholar credentials. A mortgage-payer is worried about foreigners buying up our real estate. Cassie, who looks about 12 and sounds like a small bird, asks about broadband. She wants to be in the media, she says, sidelong glancing at the jackals on the mezzanine. Abbott tells her you can’t always get what you want. But she sticks his used-car analogy right back up him.
If this is an objective poll, if it’s scientific in any sense of the word, I’m thinking, then Robert Mugabe is Norwegian.
As the evening ends and the crowd dissipates, my gaze keeps drifting back to those unclaimed voting tokens. A terrible temptation is beginning to take shape.
Nobody here knows who I am. Nobody will notice if I snaffle an unattended token, mingle with the voters and drop it into one of the ballot boxes. Integrated into the mathematical models of the pollsters, magnified by the speculative mechanism of the media and interpreted by the strategists of the parties, my vote might well end up determining the course of the campaign, perhaps the result of the election itself.
I fight back the urge. It would be morally wrong to wantonly and capriciously compromise the integrity of a public opinion poll, a process fundamental to the health of our democratic system. What of my ethics, my integrity? What if I got sprung, disgraced Crikey? Is that even possible? Would they still pay my bill at the Rooty Hill RSL Novotel? What would Jesus do?
As I ponder these questions, a guy with a press lanyard, credentials from the country’s finest national daily newspaper dangling around his neck, sidles up and quickly trousers a token. My ethical dilemma resolved, I do likewise. Thank you, Jesus.
On the way to the ballot box, I grab another quick vox pop. A husband and wife, he a retired public servant, she an immigrant from Eastern Europe, judging by the accent. They got a call from Galaxy last night. They were enlisted toot sweet and asked if they knew anybody else might be interested. Their daughter, a university student, could’ve done with the $50 but she had a shift at her part-time job. They thought the whole thing was pretty dodgy. By way of illustration, the bloke uncurled his hand and showed me three tokens. I added mine to his collection and wished him happy rat-f-cking.
Then I go down to the Fred Chubb and blow five bucks on the Treasure Island machine. Money well spent, considering the quality of the pantomime to which I’ve just been treated.
They’re great, these town-hall meetings. All the fun of the fair. And so educational, too. There should be more of them. They definitely get my vote.